So tell me now about the Chicago Blues, some of the
players where they came from, how they came up from the South after the war,
settled in Chicago and became the people that you started to produce at
Well you, you had the, at that time the migration area
started there were, most of the negroes were coming up from the South
because there was no work down there. And a lot of them came to Chicago, a
lot to Detroit but mainly to Chicago, ah.
Came up on the train right?
Train anyway… anyway they can get. We had, we had, ah,
Robert McCollum from Tenn., Memphis, we had Sonny Boy Williams from Helena,
Arkansas, he had Muddy Waters from Clarkesdale, Mississippi, ah, oh man I
can go on and on, you know.
They came up to Chicago to make money.
'cause it's about money and they came up with, a
lot of them played, most of them learned how to play on the plantation in
the South. They played, they played acoustic guitar, slide guitar but what
was happening in Chicago, they discover amplification. And, that, those
country blues ...
Came from their grandfathers, they heard them sing it
on the plantation. When, when things were tough it was, you know, it was,
they were taught the blues or gradually sit down with, with the guitar and
next thing you know that's, that's, the whole story of the blues is, is what
they feel. So they would put out in song what they felt in their heart. And
that's what the blues is.
Then you had a lot of them coming up from these
plantations that, you know, they were blown away by the big cities.
But one of the things why blues caught on so much
is that a lot of them had common experiences that they could hear about;
women messing them up you know, they, they can feel better. Blues made them
feel better not sad.
No, but, but the story of the blues is you tell your
feelings, if, if, you know. Like Eddie Boyd just sit down at the piano after
he had a fight with his, with his wife, he sits down at the piano and, and
would tell him, let, let the film run and he'd sit there and cry and be
playing on the piano, you know. "Got me accused of peeping, ain't got no
eyes. Got me accused of children, I don't have none." And all that and, and
we'd have the machine going and, ah, we'd just keep it going. And then later
on we would put in the drums and the and, and the sax or guitars, whatever
it took. That's what it is, you have to catch the blues is what comes from
the heart. I don't care if you're black, white, green or yellow. And at that
time the blues really hit the black people coming up.
Then you know they came from the South where they
had all those little juke joints. Then what happened in Chicago is that all
kinds of little bars opened up where these people could play and, ah, it all
tied in with selling records. Remember we used to put a record out on Friday
and take it around barbershops would sell records, you know, on the week-end
you'd sell a few thousand records.
They'd go to work and they'd go on Maxwell Street on
Sunday with their guitar and sit, sit down and put their head down and get
the, make three, four, five dollars whatever it took to live on at that
It wasn't white people buying it then it was just
this little, the same people from Mississippi and Tennessee and Arkansas
that came up. They were, that was, it was a very small, little limited
market but it developed its own stars. People like Muddy Waters, Howling
Wolf and then Muddy's band, they became stars. They started making money,
more money they could ever dream of, got Cadillacs, clothes.
Muddy, Muddy came up and he, first time he walked in
the studio he had a Little Walker with him, he had the Jimmy Rogers, he had
Otis Penn he had another guy Big Boy Washington, I, he's gone, they're all
gone all, all but, all but Jimmy. And then there was Tampa Red and then
there was John., Little Johnny Johnson, ah.
Do you remember the first Muddy session?
Oh yeah, "Feel Like Crying Feel Like Going
Yeah, "Feel Like Going Home" remember that?
1305, record number 1305, I remember that too,
Was he great then? Could you tell right
No, I couldn't tell but we had a feel for it because
before we got in, in the bar business my dad had a junk yard and we used to
go down there and, and, ah, and help sort out of the stuff and across people
the Baptist Church and on a Sunday man they'd get, they'd get going with
that groove and you couldn't help but stand there and dance. Really, that's,
that's how good it was. And that could have got us into it you know. And the
later my brother bought into at that time, they were doing white stuff and
no feel. And we gradually got a feel for this black, this black blues. And
thank God it took off.
So what I'd like to get into now is the Chicago Blues
how that style from the Delta moved up to Chicago, got electric and what
people call the Chicago Blues.
Chicago blues was the Delta blues but like Marshall
said, it was only electrified, only difference. I, you know I can remember
Ok, tell me what that Chicago Blues style was and your
recording of it, and the echo and all that.
Well there was, Chicago blues was Del., was actually
the Delta blues and it was amplified. And, ah, echo chambers, we, we put out
the first echo chamber, we had a, we did two different things: one we, we
used the bathroom and we had a mike in the bathroom with an amplifier and
when the mike amplifier would feed it out, the mike would pick it up and
delay was your echo till somebody went in the bathroom and flushed the
toilets and then we were, we were out of luck. So then we got a sewer pipe
and we did the same thing, we put a mike on one end of the sewer pipe and
amplifier on the other and that's how we got our delay, where we got the
echo where we made ...
It became our sound
It became our sound we the big one we have is really
a, it wasn't a blues but it was a, "My Foolish Heart" by Gene Anders.
On the saxophone.
But we noticed, you know, you know, these, these
singles would sell every weekend every week. We noticed that the electric
sound, the echo all those kind of gimmicks... catching on, something new… So
Chess then we started looking for new and different things, you know, that's
what, you know, we, we saw that the original and the fresh stuff, the fresh
sound was what sold records. So we, we developed a sensibility to look for
that and help develop it our own with, with echo, with our studio with
You remember when Muddy used to take a Coke bottle
and break the head and put it on this thing here… Played slide guitar?
That's, that's a long time ago.
Did Chess records specifically go after the black music
segment of the market?
100 percent, only.
Tell me that story. Start from the beginning.
Well I mean don't, that's who was buying our
records. That's who they, that, I'm sure my father and uncle had the feel
When we had, when, when, we got, we cut "I Feel Like
Going Home" it wasn't a hit record but if you sold 30 thousand of a record
at that, of a blues record, you could call it a hit. And, ah, pay the bills,
30 thousand of this one, 25 of this one and gradually we and then the
artists coming up from the Delta or from the South, oh yeah, man, he said, I
can play. Well come on, I'll take you over to Chess, you know. And that's
how we, we got the catalog of artists that we, that we accumulated.
Obviously you didn't hear that music as children growing
up. How did you come to really enjoy and appreciate that music or was it
mostly a financial thing?
Financial was part of it.
My dad, like I say, had a junk yard in a black
neighborhood, 29th and State Street. Like I told you before that's
predominantly all black, it is all black. And you can get a, you know, being
there five, six, seven years, you, you, you can get a feel of what's going
on. In fact you, you can, you almost like them, you talk like them, you, I
used to have people say to me, man are you white or you colored? I'd say
why? He'd say, man, you sound like you're colored. I'd says, come on man,
get lost. But because I used to have the slang like the colored people talk,
you know, just like the kids say, I don't know what, what's the thing they
say today? Chill out, I don't know what chill out meant. I don't know what
that meant. But hey mother this, hey mother that and you get, you, you were
like, I could, I could say what I wanted then and they, I would say, you
black so and so. And they'd say, you Jew so and so. But we understood each
other, see. I wouldn't go up to any black man in the street and said it to
him, I'd get my head knocked off. But in those days you knew, you know, you
understood each other. We had a, we had a porter that worked for us at the
record company ...
Sonny Woods, walked in to my office one day, said,
what's the matter, you don't feel good? I says, yeah, why do you ask me
that? He said, man, you didn't call me a. I says, he says, you don't feel
good not when you don't call me that. Every morning I would call him that he
said. I don't remember that.
But we really, you know, I, myself saw that and,
and being, growing up with it that they really loved the music. I mean it
wasn't any, ah, it wasn't just financial. You, yes, you made money from it
so you sharp, you focused in on things you made money with but there was a
definite love for the music and an understanding of it and then even more
so. We, we led a tremendous amount of the artists down the path of becoming
more original than they even were.
Well there was nobody doing the black music. In
1940's, Delta and, and RCA they don't want to mess with that. What, they 20
thousand, 30 thousand. That doesn't mean nothing to them. They, they lost a
big market. They didn't realize it.
No one care about blacks. It, it's definitely an
entertainment that's why the independents, there was a little hole there
where you can make some money.
At that time there was Specialty, Aladdin, Modern and
ourself, record, the only ones that and Miracle Records were the only ones
that were really doing, you know, black, black music. Now, I said to my son
who's here with me, that's all he plays is black music. I mean.
Immigrant idea, Marshall.
Well you know in retrospective I've thought about
this a lot and asked a lot, I always felt that my family were immigrants
they came from Poland and the blacks that came to Chicago from the South
were immigrants. They both came to, to the big city, to, to do what? To make
some money, to get a better, to make a better life for themselves. So, you
know, my family and the blacks they worked with it was a, it was a great
marriage, you know, because for both of them it was a way to better their
lives. And, ah, it slowly developed into an artistic thing. I mean I, I'm
sure, even more than my father and my uncle, that there was a lot of art,
they were really artists, you know. I'm always saying that's the thing that
people miss about my family. They helped develop the sound of Chicago blues.
Everyone came to Chess man. Everyone else in Chicago was second rate when it
came to the electric blues. They came to Chess. They sat in that waiting
Everybody loved a winner.
Yeah, and, and we got the records played. We made
the records, we, and we got them played and they were able to work with
their bands all over the city and it was a great loop that worked for all of
You know you could always tell when you had a hit
record in Chicago. We were on, I remember on 47th and ...
4750 with a canopy.
Yeah, no right on the corner.
On the corner but there was ...
And there was a bus stop right in front. And in the
summertime we'd have our door open, we had the turn-table and we'd cut a
session night before and we'd put test record a dub ...
Play it over and over.
Over and, and you see, you'd see these old women
standing Muddy Waters record ...
Waiting for the bus.
They’d say, what is that? Man that sure sound good.
Oh oh, we got a record. See, that's how we could tell, that was our gauge,
you know. It wasn't always right but 99 percent of the times it was right
because that's the music that these people understood. They, they were
raised up with it. Their grandfathers or grandparents, their parents taught
them. You know just like my parents taught me, go make some money, you know.
And that's what we tried to do.
In the early Fifties were you aware of what was being
recorded in New Orleans and in Memphis by Sam Phillips? Can you talk about
that a little and how what you were doing was similar or different?
Yeah my, my brother used to go, he used to cover the
South and I used to cover the East when we'd go on our promotion trips. And,
ah, my brother got very friendly with Sam Phillips, I mean really, really
good friends and later Sam became a friend of mine. And, ah, Sam was
cutting, at that time, he cut Folsom Prison Blues and, ah, ah, that fellow
with the white head, they called the rabbit, I've forgotten his name
He cut Howling Wolf he cut, ah, he cut, oh, ah.
And he cut a lot of those white, white artists
He gave us, he gave us two sides on Howling Wolf
called, oh, what's that big one, "Howling for my ...
"Howling For My Darling".
So in those early Fifties days, things were changing.
Tell me how if you're gone for a while.
Yeah if, if you took a vacation, if you took off with
your family for two weeks, three weeks, it's like you had to start all over
again because the trends would change so fast that you, it would take you a
while to go, get back into the trend of things that's happening. It just,
it, it was, it's a funny business. It wasn't a business that you could take
off, come back. It's, you know, we didn't and we did our own at that time.
Later on we got A and R men but at that time we just did our own. My brother
and me would be in the studio. He would be either on the board and I'd be in
the studio or, or vice versa. That's the way we did it.
You have to remember then too that we were always
listening to the radio to see if our records were being played and because
of that we heard everyone else's records. So you would hear a new sound.
You'd go back and say, did you hear that, you know, hear that beat?
If you heard a hit record with a certain beat you'd
go ahead in the studio and try to, try to, you know, copy something in that
And, and also, in those days, in the Fifties, it
was, it was wide open. If you got an idea to make a record you'd just go
ahead and make it because you could get it played on the radio. Now a days
things only follow formulas but then there were no formulas. Originality was
How did you start becoming aware that black music with a
beat was starting to sell widely to white teenagers?
That came, that came, that came in the ...
Sixties, yeah, you're, you're, you're, you're …
Sixties, the first time I noticed it was when we
put out volume 1 of the blues, when LPs became and, and all of a sudden we
saw college kids were buying blues. That was the first time that I ever
noticed it because that was, one of my first jobs was compiling these
things. Until then it was just black people buying singles but when the LP
came on the scene you, you started to see that there were white people
buying. It became fashionable.
There was a disc jockey, remember McKee Fitshugh? A
disc jockey had a record shop on 47th Street and I happened to be there one
day. We had a Muddy Water record release out. And a little white girl walked
in. She says, do you have the new Muddy Waters? And I looked and she said,
and he said, yeah, he said, you want to listen to it? And just put it in the
bag. She was ashamed to show anybody that she was buying a Muddy Waters a
blues record, you know. And I kind of looked and I says, God, they're
starting to ask, the white kids are starting to ask for it. But that was,
that was way before the Sixties. Well, I wouldn't say way before but it was
at the end of the Fifties really.
Well in 1955 I went on a road trip with my father
through the South and our first stop was Gallatin, Tennessee, Randy's Record
Shop. And that's when I saw the first white, white kids buying blues. And I,
I was amazed because my friends thought it was stupid music. They would call
it jitter-boom music. Remember that? And white kids just didn't like it and
they weren't exposed to it.
You, you know I'm going to go back a minute, years
ago when my, my brother was travelling the South. I just forgot, was it
Arkansas or Alabama, Big Boy Crotter, Big Boy Crotter, he was working in the
cotton field. And my brother went there and he wanted to record him and he
had an Ampex with him. Pulled the car out in the cotton field, plugged it
into the cigarette lighter, he had the motor running and enough juice to
work the Ampex and recorded him right in the cotton field. The song was "Sit
Down Baby, Your Daddy Wants,.." "Lay Down Baby Your Daddy Wants To Read With
You". Sure was, I forgot that. Now that's, that, you can interject that some
other kind of way in earlier days if you want. I just, I just thought about